Nonverbal Communication – The Road to Successful Relationship

Researchers of interpersonal communication have found that only 7% of the attitudinal meaning of a message comes from words and a staggering 93% comes from nonverbal cues.

Every one of us, sometime in our lives may have observed about a smart person’s explanation for not keeping his word about meeting the work schedule or honoring his commitment about payment and said to others, ‘what this man says seems logical, but my inner mind says it is not true’ and it proves true sooner or later. That inner mind is probably nothing but your eyes, which have observed the liar’s body language displayed by him unconsciously. The liar may have displayed this behavior unconsciously in bits and pieces in a few seconds, but your eyes without your knowledge may have captured and made out a meaning out of them by taking together all such behavioral units and by observing the congruence of them. What the liar has displayed is the body language, which shows up without his knowledge. Body language, which is different from the verbal expressions and displayed without words written or oral, is ‘nonverbal communication’. According to Mary Ellen Guffey, ‘nonverbal communication includes all unwritten and unspoken messages, both intentional and unintentional’.

Nonverbal communication complements the verbal communication in that without the former the latter does not give full meaning. Body language and verbal language go together without the native’s knowledge to express what is intended. Verbal language can be manipulated but body language cannot be. Body expresses its language, since it has been conditioned to do it ever since it took its body form. Every one of us also unconsciously learned how to read the body language of the other person. On one hand, the liar may be skillfully lying with very cogent reasons, but on the other he may be looking down at the floor avoiding direct eye contact with the listener or putting his fingers on his lips or speaking in reduced voice. Our eyes observe this incongruent nonverbal body language of the liar and form doubts about what the liar says verbally.

Body language symbols and signs have more than on meaning, each meaning applicable depending on the context and culture. Body language is difficult to understand and often confusing in the process of understanding it, since it is not exact and universal. But body language is louder and essential, without which the message will be uninteresting and cannot get across. According to Dr. Birdwhistle, ‘body language and spoken language are dependent on each other. Spoken language alone will not give the full meaning of what a person is saying, nor for that matter will body language alone give us the full meaning. If we listen only to the words when someone is talking, we may get as much of a distortion as we would if listened only to body language’ (Fast Julius, Body Language, Pocket Books a division of Simon and Schuster Inc, New York, 1970, pp.108).

Understanding of Body Language Saves A Boy’s Life

Julius Fast ( Fast Julius, Body Language, Pocket Books a division of Simon and Schuster Inc, New York,1970, pp.105-107) a real life story of a seventeen-year old, depressed boy named Don. The boy was meeting a therapist periodically, uttering a declaration that he would end his life. But he did not commit suicide. One late night, when the boy came to meet the therapist, he got dressed sloppily and his face was pale, and he sat in a listless way, his arms crossed and eyes vague. When he moved, his motions were tight and restricted. He was passive and slumped over when he came to rest. Don was the last patient for the night. The therapist did not want to see Don since Don came very late almost after consulting hours were over. The tired therapist said that consultation was closed for that day and hence told him to come the next day. The boy said in extreme weariness and desperation that there would be no next day for him in a flat, passive and lifeless way, meaning that he would end his life right that night. The therapist replied back to him that he was hearing such declarations of suicide over the last six weeks, but nothing of that sort happened. Don left the consulting room, immediately after the therapist refused to talk to him.

But, the therapist started feeling guilty for refusing to see Don, more so because the total picture of Don that night was entirely different and sounded that he meant suicide really, though he had been declaring the same intention over the last six weeks. Doubting this, the therapist rushed to the patient’s house though it was late night. By the time, the therapist reached Don’s house, the sleeping pills bottle was already emptied and Don half-asleep. The therapist told the parents of Don to call the family physician home so as to get Don’s stomach cleaned out, and thus saved Don’s life. The therapist understood the body language of the Don, though the oral language was the same all the six weeks.

Importance of Nonverbal Communication and its Understanding

It bears repetition that nonverbal language is an essential and integral part of message. Without it or with a wrong form of it, one cannot either get across the message or possibly send a wrong message.

To give an example about a wrong message is detected, a mention has to be made about one popular research finding that the eyes widen when one sees a beloved person or a pleasant sight. This finding proved very useful. To cite a specific use, to find out the effectiveness of the newly developed advertising copy, the team so commissioned to evaluate it shows the ad copy to a sample of target audience. The team measures the extent the eyes of the audience widened when they get exposed to the new copy.

While doing so, they also quiz them on how interesting it is, only to correlate such verbal answers with the eye dilation. A respondent’s verbal answer, which contradicts the eye dilation, is rejected as non-responses, since oral responses are understandably not honest. Eye-dilation acts like a lie detector in this case. The point here is that nonverbal language is very decisive and critical. A wrong message is detected and hacked. A person in the know of nuance of body language cannot be tricked by any con man with any verbal logic since he can distinguish the right message from wrong one.

Nonverbal language expresses unconsciously the emotions and feelings of an individual, which testify to the convictions and honesty of the individual communicating. A listener with or even without having the knowledge of nuance of the body language can estimate the veracity of the message to take further action on the message given. Similarly, a speaker having knowledge of body language can communicate more effectively by displaying appropriate body gestures.

In certain instances, body language is more appropriate than oral communication. To call attention of the speaker to a certain point, a listener would raise his hand, which is easy, instant and convenient.

Similarly, if an elderly person has to call the attention of a hapless boy who is about to step on a live and non-insulated electric wire, which has fallen on the pedestrian path, the former would clap and show the wire with gestures to the latter.

A doctor examining the patient of body pains by pressing, pushing or stroking the body expects the patient to indicate the points of pain and the degree of pain by loud mumbles.

A teacher or a public speaker is appreciated more and his message also well understood only when he uses appropriate body language including acting and dancing. Similarly, relationships are built up when the communication is honest and emotional, which can be best expressed as well understood only when the appropriate body language is simultaneously displayed.

Sonya Hamlin distinguished between words and body language very succinctly, which is presented below (Hamlin, Sonya, How to Talk so People Listen, Harper Collins Publishers India Pvt.Limited, New Delhi, 1989,pp.58-59).

Body language and words must go together to express any message effectively. Body language is uncontrollable and un-editable and hence it is more reliable than words. Mastering body language is of vital importance in either getting across a message or understanding it.

Typology of Nonverbal Language

To understand nonverbal language completely and correctly, a classification of the same has to be attempted first. Body language can be classified as follows.

Kinesics, Gestures, Facial Expressions including Smiles and Occulesics


Proxemics, Space language, Deictics

Paralanguage, Vocalics

Sign Language



A detailed discussion on each of the above mentioned nonverbal language type is attempted here.


Kinesics deals with body movements, which are effected by muscular and skeletal shifts and which happen to express something consciously or unconsciously. This includes all bodily actions, automatic reflexes, posture, facial expressions, gestures and any other body movements. The terms, body language, gesture language, organ language etc are used to describe kinesics.

Ekman and Friesen have divided the kinesics into the following five sub-categories. Emblems are nonverbal cues that have direct verbal translations like thumbs up signifying OK, index finger and middle finger of right hand making V sign signifying Victory etc. Illustrators are some gestures like pointing a finger in a particular direction to a stranger asking about the way to a particular place. These gestures are made simultaneously with verbal language so as to make the meaning more clear.

Feeling displayers are those gestures, which show inner emotions, like a clenched fist displaying hostility or defense, a stooped posture indicating submissiveness and a bowed head depression. Regulators are the gestures like those used to give ‘go or stop’ signal in conversation. If the last word is spoken loudly with stress, it signifies that the other participant has to take his turn to talk. Similarly, appropriate signals are used to tell the other person to speak faster, slower, stop, speak louder etc. Adaptors are the body movements used to adapt to the situation. For example, a boring child wiggles his toes to neutralize the effect of the boredom, from which he has no way out but to tolerate for some time.

Body movements can be classified into gestures, handshakes, posture, and facial expressions. Gestures include display and positioning of hands and legs in different shapes, tilting of torso, head and other organs, and their movements in different directions.

Gestures and Postures

When new people meet new people in a business situation, we may observe the following body language in the individuals involved. The interpretation of each kind of body language in terms of different possible meanings is also presented against such each gesture. (Hamlin, Sonya, How to Talk so People Listen, Harper Collins Publishers India Pvt.Limited, New Delhi, 1989,pp.143-144.)

Sitting on the forward edge of seat: Tension or anxiety.
Lounging back on the seat: It may be an attempt to look relaxed, but there may be other reasons.
Changing positions: Anxious and uncomfortable or impatient.

Clasped hands: Nervous or tense.

Open and relaxed hands: Person in total control of situation.

Fiddling with objects: Overflow of physical energy or unsure.

Clutching chair arms: Tension and a situation requiring support.

The popular website [ has published some very interesting and useful findings of current research on kinesics, some of which are presented as follow.

a)’Mehrabian’s Immediacy principle states that open body and arm position, leaning forward relaxed posture, and touching increases perceived liking. People who attempt to persuade others often use these immediacy contacts.’

b) Highly placed people display a more relaxed body posture.

c) O’Connor found that people who were perceived as leaders in small groups display gestures more frequently.

d) Leaders use more shoulder and arm gestures. Followers take similar gestures to look agreeable in the group setting.

e) Ekman and Friesen studies revealed that feet and legs often display true feelings. Liars learned to control facial expressions.

f) Counselors imitate their clients in body movements to look closer and agreeable. Such copying of postures would prompt self-disclosure of the clients, which is essential to giving right counseling.

g) Nancy Henley said, the airs of a person reveal his position in life. ‘Standing tall in and of itself helps a person achieve dominance.’

h) Albert Mehrabian said that people assuming inferior role would reflect it by lowering head and those assuming superior roles would display it by raising their heads.

Facial Expressions

Eyes, mouth, and face are the three major bases of facial expressions. Eyes create gaze or stare and mouth creates smiles or pulls mouth corners down or up, to express different meanings or emotions or feelings. Face changes its shapes or moves in different directions to communicate different messages.

We have 80 muscles in our face, which create more than 7000 facial expressions. According to Demond W.Evany, facial expressions include the forms as listed in the following.

1.Forehead- upward and downward frowns.

2.Eyebrows- raising or knitting or furrowing.

3.Eyelids- Opening, closing and narrowing.

4.Eye-pupils- dilating.

5. Eyes-upwards, downward, gazing, holding or avoiding eye contact.

6. Nose- nostrils widening.

7.Facial muscles- drawn up or down, for grinning or teeth clenching.

8.Lips – smiling, pursing, drawn in.

9. Mouth – wide open, drawn in, half open.

10. Tongue- licking lips, moving around inside cheeks, sucking teeth.

11. Jaw/ chin- thrust forward, handing down.

12. Head- thrown back, inclines to one side, hanging down, chin drawn in, chin inclined upwards. (Rayudu, C.S., Communication, Himalaya Publishing House, Mumbai, 2006, pp.225-226.)

There are mainly six kinds of facial expressions, which are universal and found across all cultures. Happiness is expressed through round eyes, smiles and raised cheeks. Disgust is expressed through wrinkled nose, lowered eyelids and eyebrow, and raised upper lip. Fear is displayed through round eyes and open mouth. Anger is indicated through lower eyebrow and pointed stare. Surprise is expressed through raised eyebrow, wide-open eyes and open mouth. Sadness is reflected through area around mouth and eyes.

We will first discuss the use of eyes in communication. It is also referred to as occulesics. We frequently come across in the literature the words describing the actions and adjectives of eyes like melting eyes, steely eyes, piercing eyes, glowing eyes, ensnaring eyes etc. Eyes whose shape can be changed in more than one way with the help of face around them can show different emotions and get across different messages. Widening, squinting, pulling long, staring, staring half, staring to the side etc are some of the familiar shapes the eye can change into.

Julius Fast says, we don’t stare at human beings, which is offensive. We reserve our stare for non-persons only. Non-persons include exhibits in the museum, animals in the zoo, servants, children, actors while in action etc. (Fast Julius, Body Language, Pocket Books a division of Simon and Schuster Inc, New York, 1970, pp.130-131).

The popular website [ has published some very interesting and useful findings of current research on oculesics, the eye behavior, which are presented below.

1) ‘When we take interest in something, our blinking rate decreases and our eyes begin to dilate. If we dislike something, our eyes contract.’

2) Argyle and Dean say that making eye contact with someone makes interaction and obligation

3) At a table, those with the most opportunity for eye contact is likely to become a leader.

4) When people sit in a circle, they are more likely to talk to those across the room from them than those side to side, because of the most opportunity for eye contact.

Gazes in their different forms can convey the meanings of love, hate, carelessness, respect, confidence and dishonesty and study.

Smile is a frequently and unconsciously used communication form. Smile expresses happiness, invitation to interaction, good will and greeting. Smile improves the face value. A person smiling is welcome anywhere. There are special training programs to inculcate smiling behavior especially for employees who are in direct contact with public and customers. The need for such training is felt more in bureaucratic organizations like public sector undertakings, which have to increasingly face the stiff competition from multinationals who are good at customer relations. While popular impression about smile is positive, smile has negative forms and unpleasant nuances. Prof.Asha Kaul has mentioned three kinds of smiles (Kaul, Asha, Business Communication, Tenth Print, Prentice Hall of India, New Delhi, 2004, pp.86-88). They are felt smile, miserable smile, and false smile.

Felt smile is genuine and an _expression of appreciation. Eyes also corroborate the appreciative smile. In the genuine smile, there is upturn of lips and corners of mouth, though mouth is closed. Another form of genuine smile in pleasant meeting or greeting is when upper teeth are exposed with simultaneous eye contact. The third kind of genuine smile is the one to express the amusement at the joke. In this smile, the smile gets increasingly broader, to explode into loud laughter. Miserable smile, the second kind of smile, is the one with a half mouth and indicates dissatisfaction and disillusionment. It comes out of a forced concealment of many feelings. The third kind, false smile is sarcastic, restricted to lips only and is indicated by slight upturn in the mouth.

Face is the index of a person, which is capable of expressing many an emotion and feeling. A person who is skilled to interpret the changes in the faces can understand many hidden messages and take a different path of action based on them.


Haptics, or ‘tactile Communication’ deals with study of touch. Touch communicates certain meaning. Touch communicates warmth and love. Any living being especially dogs and human beings require the touch of a loving hand more so when they are infants. The physiological and mental growth of them is determined by the touch they experience. One research study revealed that patients who were touched for 15 minutes thrice in a day gained weight 47% faster and could leave the hospital 6 days earlier.

Touch not only makes communication complete and effective but it also works as a technique of persuasion of others about a new idea or new practice. Julius Fast has won the heart of an over-enthusiastic and often-interrupting young trainee in a session by touching him in a corner outside the session rather than by showing his physical energy, skills and his resources.

Sidney Jarad, Psychologist, counted the average number of contacts on a person per hour in the work life in certain places and found that it is 180 contacts in San Juan, Pueroto Richo, 110 in Paris, France, 2 Gainsville, Florida and 0 in London, England. The average number of contacts varies from culture to culture ([). Touch, as said before, is a means of communicating warmth and assurance, but touching persons of opposite sex may be offensive in certain cultures.

The most frequently happening touch is shaking hands with others in various occasions, which is discussed in the following paragraphs.


Handshakes signify the personality and attitude of an individual. Handshake in a proper form has to be learned and practiced in the corporate world, which frequently necessitates meeting and shaking hands with people. Let us understand the types of handshakes and their meaning.
Asha Kaul has classified handshakes into five kinds. (Kaul, Asha, Business Communication, Tenth Print, Prentice Hall of India, New Delhi, 2004, pp.82-85.) Handshakes in their different forms can indicate attitude, inferiority and superiority feelings, pretension of respect and informal behavior. A brief mention of different handshakes and their meanings is mentioned here.

a) Equal handshake: Exerting an equal amount of pressure in reciprocation is equal handshake. It signifies feeling of equality with the other.

b) Limp handshake: In this kind of handshake, the hands are loose and pressure less. Limp handshakes indicate a feeling of subordination and inferiority.

c) Tight grip: In the tight handshake, one person exerts more pressure than the other to indicate that he is superior to the other.

d) Politician’s handshake: A politician shakes a voter’s hand with both hands. It indicates subservience outwardly but born of honesty. Both-hand-handshake in some cases may be an indication of warmth, which has to be determined with the help of other signals like smile etc.

e) Informal handshake: In this kind of handshake, the full hand does not clasp the other and in stead, only a few fingers join the other’s few fingers.


Proxemics, Diectics and Space language are the different terms used to refer to the way the space is maintained by an individual around him in his home or social setting or workplace settings. E.T. Hall, a researcher coined the word Proxemics in 1963 when he was studying the way an individual uses the personal space. The way a person uses his space either promotes or impedes communication relationship. The way one maintains space around him communicates something. The more distant a person places himself from another, the less close the relationship will be between them. The wider the space around a person, the higher his social status will be. Social status determines the space and distance maintained by an individual.

Every person unconsciously demarcates his personal space, which is also called ‘personal territory’. He does not want it to be invaded into by anybody barring his very few intimate relations. He resists anybody trying to encroach into it by either moving backwards or putting permanent obstruction like big table or placing chairs distantly. He starts hating an indiscriminate invader of his personal territory. The officers of the rank of Vice-President have spacious offices with coffee table, bed suite, attached private conversation room, visitors’ lounge etc.

The district magistrate has a wide table and two long rows of chairs, which not only seat many visitors but keep them at a distance also. While what was explained in the preceding is about space maintained by the higher-ranking officers on permanent basis, a visiting officer’s rank is known by the way he goes close to the sitting officer. Higher-ranking officers go straight and sit close to the officer while lower cadre officers keep themselves at a distance to indicate to the sitting officer about their lower cadre.

Dr.August F.Kinzel of New York Psychiatric Institute found that the violent behavior of certain psychiatric patients is attributed to the invasion of personal space. The psychiatriatric patients attacked the others for nothing but for the fact that the people who were assaulted innocently went close to them. The patients were threatened by the act of going close to them. Human beings and even animals are possessive of their personal territory, whose invasion is resisted at any cost. (Fast Julius, Body Language, Pocket Books a division of Simon and Schuster Inc, New York, 1970, pp.46-47.)

E.T.Hall has classified the informal spatial territory in four categories. They are intimate space, personal space, social space and public space.

The intimate space consists of the distance extending over half foot (six inches) to one and half feet (eighteen inches) from the speaker. It is space maintained with persons for embracing and whispering. In this space, secrets are shared. In this space, intimacy and caressing are displayed usually between close relations or close friends. A stranger is not expected to enter this space and if by any chance he does so, it would be extremely offensive.

Personal space, which again consists of close personal distance and far personal distance, extends from one and half feet to four feet. Close personal distance covers the distance from one and half feet to two and half feet. Far personal distance extends from two and half feet to four feet. Close personal distance is open to wife or husband. On the other hand, at parties or when two people meet on a street, they come within far personal space, which signifies intimate but not as intimate as a wife to a husband.

Social space extends from four feet to twelve feet. Social space can also be divided into close and far spaces. Close space covers the distance from four feet to seven feet and far space from seven feet to twelve feet. In close social distance, we conduct impersonal transactions like talking to a client or a housewife talking to a repairman. The far social space is maintained for formal social or business relationships. This is the distance between a boss and employee or the one between a receptionist and visitor. In this space, constant visual contact has to be maintained, else misunderstanding may develop between the interacting individuals. This space helps people relax and attend to their respective personal duties.

Public space extends all the distance beyond twelve feet to the point where eyes can reach. Public space also can be divided into two parts- close and far. Close public space extends up to twenty-five feet from twelve feet whereas far public space the distance beyond twenty-five feet. Close public space is used for informal gatherings or the space maintained by teachers in the classrooms or the one maintained by boss in the conference of staff or workers. Far public space is that maintained between politicians and the general public or the distance that has to maintained from wild animals which otherwise would feet threatened and attack the invader.

Space maintained by an individual around himself and the distances kept from others signify his status and the status of others as perceived by him. Space communicates about his status more candidly than spoken verbal messages.


Paralanguage, also referred to as vocalics means the differences in the meaning that comes from stress on different words, change in tone, pitch, rhythm, volume, pause in sentence, speed of delivery etc.

For example, the read the following sentence by changing the emphasis from word to word.

1. I am doing MBA in Hyderabad.

2. I am doing MBA in Hyderabad.

3. I am doing MBA in Hyderabad.

4. I am doing MBA in Hyderabad.

5. I am doing MBA in Hyderabad.

In first sentence when emphasis is placed on ‘I’, it may mean that I am different from others and I am only (not others) doing MBA in Hyderabad. In the second sentence when emphasis is placed on ‘am’, it may mean that I am doing MBA and not sitting idle. In the third sentence where emphasis is placed on ‘doing’, it may mean that I am working hard exclusively on MBA and hence not doing anything else. In the fourth sentence where emphasis is on ‘MBA’, it may mean that MBA is a great course and I am doing it. In the fifth sentence, ‘Hyderabad’ is emphasized to mean that the MBA course in Hyderabad stands out from the rest and I am doing it.

Paralanguage can be categorized into many components like pitch, tone, inflection, volume, rhythm, and articulation.

Pitch refers to the frequency of note one strike through voice. Pitch is neither loud nor soft voice. High and low pitch can be either loud or soft voice. In low pitch, vocal chords are kept short and tense, whereas in high pitch, vocal chords are long and relaxed. High pitch is used when a person is tense and low pitch is used when he is relaxed. Highest pitch is employed when an individual is highly and extremely enthusiastic. Lowest pitch is employed when one is very and extremely serious.

Tone reflects the attitude of the speaker. Tone may be direct, commanding, loud, harsh, derisive, soft, comforting, sharp, boisterous etc.

Inflection is the change of voice to stress on or stretch key words or phrases or pause before a word or phrase.

Volume is loudness or softness of voice. Volume is changed depending on the situation. For example, a subordinate is expected to speak in low volume before a superior and high volume in a staff review meeting.

Like pitch, volume etc, speed or tempo of delivery is also a part of paralanguage. Speedy delivery signifies enthusiasm or urgency while slow delivery signifies relaxation or thoughtfulness. Similarly, pauses or stutters also are part of paralanguage, which have influence on the communication.

Sign language

Sign language includes the signboards in airports, railway stations, bus stations, traffic signs displayed on the national highways etc which indicate the various passenger facilities, check-in and check out directions, cautions required to observed in specific areas, upcoming stations on the way, curves, bridges, speed to be maintained in a specific places etc. The sign language also includes the signs made with fingers and hands like thumbs up, thumbs down, forming ‘V’ with middle and index fingers, waving hands while sending a friend off at a railway station or bus station etc.


Chronemics is the language of time. If you promise reaching at a particular place at a particular time and if you have kept it by even seconds, you signify by it that you are serious about it or you are disciplined. It may also mean that you have no other job. Or, it may also be understood, you are a rung lower than the person whom you have to meet. Time language, though culture-bound, has its specific meaning-, which may be either positive or negative.

In India, politicians jump the schedules of proceedings, which they themselves fix, as if to signify that they being politicians are busy with many preoccupations and it is a symbol of their superiority. In US or Europe, if you don’t keep an appointment, especially in business, such failure is viewed seriously so much so that you can forget dealing with the same party again.

Keeping appointments and schedules communicate status, seriousness, and honesty. Habitual failure in meeting appointments and schedules indicates indiscipline, disorganized way of one’s life and disrespect towards the matter under consideration. The point we make here is that time kept or otherwise has a definite meaning, though it is not verbally expressed.